Saturday, September 28, 2013

The play-in-progress preview reading

After I visited the Pyjama Girl at the cemetery in Melbourne, I jumped on a train and napped all the way to Albury. Then, it was straight to rehearsals in preparation for the staged reading that was happening two days later. Being in the theatre, and seeing the immense amount of work that the director, Travis, and cast had done while I’d been away in Italy was really exciting, not in the least because I’d made some script revisions before I left Australia and this was my first opportunity to see the changes. 

On Thursday 5 September HotHouse presented a public staged reading as part of the Write Around the Murray festival. This was followed by a Q and A session. I, of course, was still jet-lagged, and arrived at the theatre an hour and a half before the actor’s call, because I got the time wrong. Continuing my habit of sleeping in things that are not beds: planes, trains, my Mum’s Winnebago, I had a kip on a couch in the dressing rooms, which as it turns out, is an excellent place for napping, especially when the delightful production manager turned off the lights and put on the gentle blue backstage lights instead. 

Everything moved quickly after that and before I knew it, audience members were appearing in the foyer. My Mum and sister came along, as did my Dad, who by amazing coincidence was in Albury that week. That was an exciting moment for me personally, as he has never seen a play I’ve written because he doesn’t live near me. (And also, he’s not really a theatre type. When I was 18 and told him I was going to university to study a Bachelor of Arts he said, ‘Why Emma? You can’t draw.’) 

The reading went very well—except for a technical hiccup. 

While the first reading held in December last year had been quite static, with actors sitting or standing in a row and reading from a script, this time, movement was included, and even live music. Travis read a few stage directions as needed, for example, when scenes hadn’t yet been fully choreographed, or set pieces (like a magician’s box) weren’t on stage. A few songs were even performed live, and keyboard and drums were used to underscore parts of the performance. 

The keyboard, which had worked in rehearsal and when it was tested 10 minutes before the performance, stopped working. The actors, kept going, as good actors should, and the MC even began singing the first song a capella before the technical director called a halt to the show. 

The pianist brought out a second keyboard—but this one didn’t connect to the same power supply. Rapidly, another keyboard was brought out (I think it might have been the first one coming back again) and there was some amusing slapstick as the two keyboards were swapped around) and then finally, a third, much smaller keyboard came out, which had the audience in hysterics. A lady sitting behind me whispered to her friend ‘Oh, I think this is part of the show.’

Finally the keyboard was connected, and technical director Rob took a bow to uproarious laughter and applause.

(As we all know, techs usually spent their time sitting in confined spaces in the dark, so I think Rob enjoyed his moment on stage).

The MC made a few jokes as laughter subsided and the show resumed from the start of the song. 

From there on in, everything went smoothly. Pleasingly, some audience members even joined in singing an old musical hall sing-a-long called ‘Oh Oh Antonio’ (link), which was exactly what I’d hoped for. People laughed in places we hadn’t expected, as well as places we had expected.

After this, I joined Travis, HotHouse Artistic Direct Jon, local historian Bruce, and some cast members on stage for a Q and A facilitated by Jenni Munday. We spoke about the development process and got some good feedback from the audience. We were even able to ask a few of our own questions to see what worked for the audience.

My Dad had asked me, the day before, why I was writing the play, and I said that I had remembered hearing him and Mum talk about it in the car when we were driving along the Howlong road when I was a small child. He said he didn’t think so. 

So either I misremember, or he does, but my Dad doesn’t think he was ever aware of the spot on the road where the Pyjama Girl was found. 

This means that much-used answer I give when people ask me while I’m writing this play may not be true after all. This is strangely fitting in a play that throughout its development, has led me to observe how our memories are so vulnerable to being eroded by mythology.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A grave pilgrimage - part 2

Visiting the Pyjama Girl’s grave at Preston Cemetery in Melbourne was a very different experience to visiting Antonio Agostini’s grave in Cagliari, Sardinia.

I had just arrived back in Australia, flying from Venice to Dubai and then Melbourne. A dear friend of mine, Petra, had volunteered to pick me up, and we met at Southern Cross station and then began driving to the cemetery. It was before peak hour and we were going against the flow of early morning traffic so we got to the cemetery much earlier than we expected, and stopped at a nearby McDonalds to kill time and have breakfast, and catch up. We talked theatre and music and life and I raved about Italy and talked more about how the Pyjama Girl play was developing.

We went to the cemetery, and I, with the slight tremors of sleep deprivation settling in, wondered if I would be nervous, and, realising I wasn’t, wondered if I should be.

But the experience was easy, the landscape was familiar, and with Petra at my side, there was a lightness to the experience. There were even a few laughs.

There was an information office clearly marked at the entrance to the cemetery, but we consulted the map closest to the car park first. I had a grave number this time, but the map didn’t give an indication of grave numbering. But just then, two groundskeepers, in fluoro vests walked past and said hello, and we enquired about the grave number. The men said we could get better directions at the office, but the men reckoned they knew which section was likely and explained how the numbering system worked.

‘Give us a yell if you get lost,’ they said, as we thanked them and wandered away.

‘Oh, but however will we find you,’ Petra joked, referring to the high-visibility vests.

Laughs all round, and quite relaxed, we wandered up a gentle hill towards the section the men had pointed to. We lost the numbers briefly, and I thought maybe the grave would be in the pauper’s area, which was missing many of the helpful bricks numbering each grave—and, more challengingly, missing headstones. The Pyjama Girl (buried as Linda Agostini) was recorded as being in an unmarked grave.

We decided to start working our way towards to information office, but then found the numbers again, and soon, the numbers were leading us to the row the Pyjama Girl is buried in. We walked, calling out grave numbers to each other.

‘She must be just down here,’ I said.

And she was. I saw the number before I saw the grave, but registered that it wasn’t, in fact, unmarked as I had expected. A simple white cross, made by hand, and not quite symmetrical with the name Florence L. Agostini handwritten in lipstick red. We stood quietly at the grave for a moment.

It was a warm day in Melbourne. The third day of spring. The sun was starting to creep up. I smelled gumtrees. Heard magpies calling.

There were even some artificial flowers left at the grave, and they hadn’t been discoloured by weather so it was hard to tell how old they were.

Either way, someone cared. Someone remembered. Maybe more than several someones. We spent a few quiet minutes at the grave. 

I had an impulse to leave something at the grave. A token of respect. It seemed unfair that I had left a badge at Agostini’s tomb in Cagliari, but nothing here.

I wished I’d thought to buy flowers on the way. In Cagliari, the cemetery had flower markets out the front. Here, no such convenience (we thought; we later saw there was a florist a block away). 

Hat flower in Venice.

I suddenly remembered the white fabric flower I’d been wearing in my hair. 

I bought it the week before I went to Albury to clip my fringe out of my eyes. I wore the flower in my hair, or pinned to my hat all throughout my time in Italy. It became my signature item at the playwriting retreat. I have photos of myself wearing it in Florence, in Venice, in Sardinia. It’s become imbued with me, with Italy, with this adventure I’ve been having as the play nears the stage.

It’s now nestled on the stones at the Pyjama Girl’s final resting place. 

Then, because Petra was curious, we went into the long brick mausoleum near the car park and it was like going back to Italy. Notices not to light candles or leave fresh flowers (ersatz only, due to occupational health and safety regulations) written first in Italian and then in English. Tombstones adorned with flowers and pendants of saints and photographs of the deceased. Some, still bearing handmade cards or letters from father’s day. An old Nonna, tending to the plaque of a loved one. We were quiet, hushed, as we walked through the hallways of the dead and tried to figure out how the artificial candles worked.

Thinking about it afterwards, I found it curious that my emotional response was so much stronger when I found Tony’s tomb in Sardinia.

In part, I know that’s because of the quest to find it. The journey. The possible failure. The high stakes, knowing I wouldn’t easily have a chance to revisit.

I was in an unknown place, an unfamiliar landscape,

Tony’s tomb was untended, forgotten, unlike the others around it, which were adorned with flowers.

I was relieved to see the Pyjama Girl’s grave was marked and not forgotten, even if it did have the wrong name on it. I think the name on the cross may also have affected the way I responded to it. I wasn’t there to mourn Linda Agostini, and it’s hard to pay your respects to someone when you don’t know their name.

Mostly, though, I think it’s because I knew what to expect when visiting Preston Cemetery.

I’ve travelled the road where the body was found. I’ve smelled the sterile antiseptic in the case where the death mask is kept at the LibraryMuseum. I’ve touched the lead-lined box where the Pyjama Girl spent ten years preserved in a formalin solution.

But still, as I farewelled Petra at Southern Cross station and boarded the train to take me to Albury, it was with a sense of disquiet about my response to the two experiences.

What did my experience say about feminism?

After all, it’s reasonably possible that Agostini did kill his wife. It’s just that she wasn’t the Pyjama Girl.

Yes, he would have been guilty of a crime, but if it hadn’t been the woman who became an icon—the equivalent of the unknown soldier for female murder victims—he wouldn’t have become a household name for all the wrong reasons. So what am I doing sympathising with him?

I think it’s because the storyteller part of me is upset at people getting the story wrong. The way Agostini is remembered is not necessarily true to his life. The man – now commonly documented as a waiter – also had highly ambitious, intellectual career as a journalist who started an Italian language paper in Australia.

While I was in Italy I saw other tombs. Machiavelli, Michelangelo, members of Florence’s Medici family, popes, martyrs. It wasn’t deliberate tombstone tourism, but history and memorials were everywhere I went.

So I’ve been thinking about how we memorialise people.

And I realise a play is a way to do that. I think that’s partly what the Pyjama Girl is all about – what drove me to write about it; that this story is about to pass out of living memory. The actors, aged under 26, had never heard of it, despite growing up in the area. Somewhere, in the few years between their age and mine, the story has faded.
When Petra and I were heading back to the car at the Preston Cemetery, one of the men wearing high-visibility vests waved to us.
‘How’d you go? Did you find what you were looking for?’ he asked.
I think I already had it. I don’t think I needed to go to the grave—to ask permission from this girl, to make sure I am doing the right thing by here—because I think that’s why I wanted to visit. I’m glad I went there all the same.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A grave pilgrimage - part 1

Earlier this year, I found out I’d been accepted into the La Mama Umbria playwriting retreat. I was quite excited about the prospect of 10 days to write and experience the Italian countryside.
(I could rave for days, but I’ll simply say that it was pure bliss and far beyond my wildest expectations. The people, the creative nourishment, the obscenely large home-grown tomatoes atop delicious food and the beautiful surrounds, in part mythic, rugged, and tranquil; all had me in a kind of mad bliss. Inspiration grows in the hills of Umbria. After almost two years working on the Pyjama Girl, and more than two years working on my play before that, Widowbird, I’d spent so much time on revisions, I wasn’t sure I could remember how to tackle a first draft. While I was with La Mama I wrote the first draft of a new play, and somewhere between Dubai airport and the train back to Albury on the way home, I finished the first draft of another project I’d been struggling with.)

At a creative development at HotHouse Theatre, I was talking to the Pyjama Girl cast about my plans for Italy and one of the actors asked if I planned to visit Tony Agostini’s grave. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. Within a few days—after figuring out the difference between the islands of Sardinia and Sicily—I had booked my flights to visit Cagliari, the town where Tony Agostini lived the final years of his life.

Sardinia is a strange place. D.H. Lawrence thought so too:
“Cagliari: a naked town rising steep, steep, golden looking, piled naked to the sky from the plain at the head of a formless hollow bay. It is strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy. The city piles up lofty and almost miniature, and makes me think of Jerusalem: without trees, without cover, rising rather bare and proud, remote as if back in history, like a town in a monkish, illuminated missal. One wonders how it ever got there. And it seems like Spain or Malta: not Italy. It is a steep and lonely city, as in some old illumination. Yet withal rather jewel-like: like a sudden rose-cut amber jewel naked at the depth of the vast indenture. The air is cold, blowing bleak and bitter, the sky is all curd. And that is Cagliari. It has that curious look, as if it could be seen but not entered. It is like some vision, some memory, something that has passed away." (D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia - 1921)

Closer to Tunis than it is to Rome, Cagliari, the port-side capital, is a melting pot of culture. North African street traders try to entice you to buy cheap sunglasses or knock off bags beneath ancient white buildings. The city is built into cliffs so steep there are elevators for pedestrians in some parts. Narrow cobbled streets sometimes have vast gaps where part of a building has crumbled away, allowing a view of the sky between tall stone apartments where people go about their lives. There’s graffiti, but not as much as Rome. Hardly anyone speaks English. The bus service is efficient and has live information on the next bus at almost every bus stop—far more sophisticated than public transport in Canberra. There’s a lively shopping strip where I stumbled upon a street band playing steel drums, banjo, cello and trumpet. Nearby, there’s an excellent gelataria I visited multiple times for lampone e limone—raspberry and lemon—gelato. At night, the moon hangs bright and enormous. From the top part of town, the ancient Castello area, it seems like the moon is lower than you are. The whole experience made me think vaguely of the Star Wars cantina where Han Solo blows off that guy’s arm. Bizarre and vibrant and otherworldly.
A street in Cagliari.

My journey to visit Agostini’s grave was both simpler and more challenging than expected. My host at the Bed and Breakfast had helpfully printed me a Google map with stop locations, line numbers and schedules. Using my best Italian, I bought a daily bus ticket from the nearest Tabacchi (news stand/cigarette/bus ticket vendor on almost every corner) and jumped on the bus. There my Italian failed when I asked the bus driver if he could tell me when we reached Cimitero San Michele. It turns out I was mispronouncing the word for cemetery and he wanted to let me off at the San Michele markets a stop before. But, with the Google maps telling me I had another stop or two, plus a group of old Sardinian ladies carrying flowers and wearing black who figured out what I was trying to say, the whole bus agreed that I needed the next stop, taught me how to pronounce it properly (CHimitero), and we smiled and laughed, and then the old ladies walked me across the road to the Cimitero lest I get lost.
Cimitero San Michele, Cagliari, view from main entrance.

At the Cimitero, another challenge. I’d checked before I left Australia the opening times for the cemetery and the information office, but once inside the vast cemetery I couldn’t find the information office. Finally, I found the groundskeeper’s office, and inside, among 1970s d├ęcor, two men smoking and listening to the radio. Neither spoke English. One went off to see if they had a map for me, while I tried to explain to the other that I was looking for a grave. ‘Dove la tomba per Antonio Agostini-‘ I began while he waved his hands and shrugged and said something about a computer. I wrote down Agostini’s date of death on a piece of paper, because I never really managed to learn how to count past 10 in Italian. He pointed to a piece of paper. The computer with grave locations was in the information office. They didn’t have a computer here (of course they didn’t have a computer. It was still the 1970s in their office). And the information office was only open lunedi, martedi, mercoledi, giovedi and venerdi.
And today was Saturday.

(Now that I think about it—that was probably the perfect opportunity to use a new Italian swear word I’d learnt a few days before, but I didn’t).

I said okay and explained (with the aid of universal pantomime) that I would just go looking. He shook my hand and wished me luck.

So, slightly panicked, I set off to look for a needle in a haystack, anxiously checking my watch, and kicking myself for poor scheduling. For some reason, even though it was the most important activity—indeed, the very thing that had brought me to Sardinia, I had left it to my last day. I’d already toured pristine aquamarine beaches along Sardinia’s rugged south coast, visited Phoenician ruins near the town of Pula, seen wild flamingos in a lagoon near a windmill farm, and eaten sardines in Sardinia at a fancy seafood restaurant. Now, I had six hours before I needed to go collect my bags and get to the airport and I had no idea where to start in the huge cemetery. If only I’d come yesterday!

I told myself to calm down. ‘It doesn’t really matter if I don’t find the grave. It’s about the journey. I’m still here.’ I tried to be Zen about it. At the playwriting retreat, which I had just left the day before, Erik Ehn, playwright, facilitator, sage, had told us that we were always in the middle of the process of writing a play. We learnt to embrace ‘being in the middle’ (again, I could write a thesis on this, but I utterly agree. As a playwright, my creativity shrivels when I spent too much time thinking about the end point, rather than being busily engaged in the creating).

I started walking. In the centre of the cemetery are large walls of tombs—an outdoor mausoleum, in some sections two stories high. Early on, in an L-shaped wall, I noticed the tomb of a woman called Guiseppina, which was the name of Agostini’s second wife, a widow he had married upon settling in Cagliari. I wasn’t sure if she had the right surname, but her date of death was just three weeks from his. (I later found out that it was the wrong Guiseppina after all.)

Certain he would be interred nearby, I started exploring all the nearby walls. I found many tombs from 1969, but there also didn’t seem to be a logical order of dates.

‘Surely he won’t be far away,’ I thought. But he wasn’t in that large L-shaped wall, nor the next, nor the next after that. My neck began to hurt from craning to read inscriptions. I was sweating (it was about 35 degrees that day at 11 am) and I was starting to get sunburnt. I was starting to worry that he wasn’t in one of the mausoleum walls at all but in the vast burial grounds, where I’d seen handmade crosses and graves that weren’t marked at all. But then, 45 minutes later, having resigned myself to the possibility of not finding him, and after covering about a third of the walls, I found myself looking at the name Antonio Agostini. My B and B host, who I’d told about my quest, said that Agostini was not a Sardinian name, so he would be easy to find in a cemetery. She was right; I didn’t see anyone else called Agostini. Now, I did a double take to confirm I wasn’t imagining it. It was him. Strangely, I felt like I was about to start crying.

Tony Agostini’s tombstone is simple, unadorned, and almost illegible. The engraved letters in the rock haven’t been filled with gold or lead like most of the other inscriptions, so in direct sunlight, the stone appears blank. I pulled a ladder across and climbed to get a better look, although I stopped a few rungs from the top, because I’m scared of heights and I was more than 10 feet high, because it was windy, and because the ladder was on wheels and I was on a gentle slope.
Mausoleum wall. Agostini's tomb is third from the top, near the centre of the photo.
I left a small piece of metal that my Mum had given me before I left Albury—an offcut from a plaque, I think—engraved with one word: Australia.
Then I caught the bus back to the B and B to collect my camera.

‘Did you find him?’ my host asked, ‘Did you find your man?’
She was delighted I had. I felt shell-shocked. I think because I had spent so long talking about, writing about and reading about this man that he had passed into mythology for me.

After some time sightseeing and eating gelato, I went back to the cemetery again and found my way to Agostini’s tomb easily this time.
I wondered if I was doing the right thing by leaving the small Australia badge. Would he want to be reminded of his time here? Would he want to be remembered?

Antonio Agostini's tomb.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Jet-lagged video blog

I'm sure I meant to post this earlier. Anyway, here's me, talking about a new word I learned while in Italy.

Another post to come soon on my quest to Sardinia to find Antonio Agostini (well, his tomb) and the recent public staged reading of the Pyjama Girl that HotHouse put on as part of the Write Around the Murray festival.